The other day, I was working in my office at home when my ten-year-old daughter, Natalie, came in. On the age-old child’s understanding that all adults sitting quietly are really waiting for something to do, she started poking into various things and asking me about them. There’s not much in an older person’s library to hold a young girl’s attention, but all of a sudden her eyes focused on my Compact Oxford English Dictionary.
“Can I look at that?”
I thought what she wanted was to get out the magnifying glass that comes with the small-print volumes and play with it. But then she asked the big question:
“What do you think it would say if I looked up transubstantiation?”
Moments like this are what keep many of us writing out the tuition checks for the parish school without caring whether vouchers ever come through. The National Education Association will never put curiosity like that into any American child’s mind.
Now that the smoke has cleared from the mostly inconsequential celebrations ushering in the new millennium, perhaps we can turn to more substantial questions like my daughter’s again. The only thing that surprised me about the sheer torrent of commentary on the meaning of the transition to the next thousand years was how little of it paid any attention to the fact that the only reason there was a millennium to celebrate was that Christ was born at the beginning of our era. Even more, amid all the speculation whether Elvis Presley or Hillary Clinton should be counted among the top 100 personalities of the century, hardly anybody paid attention to the institution that has demonstrably shaped the past 2,000 years more than any other: the Catholic Church.
My local paper, the Washington Post, did occasionally find some reason to mention the Church, usually to point to its absurd claims and nefarious influence. In a special section entitled At the Millennium, for instance, several writers who had clearly never been to Catholic schools dismissed the Church with chic guilt-by-association. One quoted a pope claiming the infallibility of the Church—and then commented that he inaugurated the First Crusade a short while later. Another sketched the Heloise and Abelard story with a lot of heavy breathing and added that they knew bodily passion was wrong. The Church had told them so.
Even my ten-year-old could have explained that infallibility only applies to faith and morals, and she might even have something to say about the not wholly ignoble Crusader ideal, even if it failed in practice, to retake the Holy Land. She’s not yet of age—though pop music relentlessly tries to make her so—to understand the Church’s intricate and wonderful teaching on human love. But she could probably tell a Washington Post reporter that adultery and fornication as such, let alone by people vowed to chastity, are forbidden by the Ten Commandments and, therefore, by God.
We have reached a point where the most prestigious conveyors of daily information are far less educated in crucial respects than the most ordinary fifth-grader in good Catholic schools. Partly, it is the mere working out of decades of American miseducation. But the reason for the educational breakdown reveals an even deeper problem for the coming millennium.
The standard liberal historiography about religion is a kind of funhouse mirror that distorts even what it reflects. For most college-educated people in America today (and for most of the writers and readers of our prestige journals), the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church has been reduced to a few cartoon frames: Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo, and no sex or abortion. The great intellectual figures associated with the faith—Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, da Vinci, Pascal, Newman—are invisible. The great saints—Francis of Assisi, Thomas More, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Phillip Neri, Therese of Lisieux, Maximilian Kolbe—who are also among the most interesting human beings the world has produced, and might actually have something to say to the nervous dissatisfactions of contemporary life, might just as well have never existed. The great artists—Michelangelo, Raphael, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven—apparently were not inspired by the Church’s great truths but created themselves out of their own resources, like modern artists. In the liberal reading, you would never suspect that Christianity helped end slavery, raised the status of women, and eliminated the brutality of ancient societies.
That our trendy popular commentators can ignore the largest truths of two Christian millennia at the very moment that the Christian calendar provides them with an occasion to reflect on the past tells us a great deal about what needs to be done in the new age. Many Christians in the past understood, without ever having it explained to them, that our reverence toward the Eucharist at Mass reflected our recognition of the reality that has inspired Christian civilization. Our relatively less formal celebrations of the Eucharist mean that we need better Catholic education to reenergize our deepest understanding of ourselves and to make sure that at least a remnant does not forget where the world we live in came from.
But Catholics themselves have to become curious again about this great Christian civilization, spread over 20 centuries now, that has brought so much into the world. If we do, we will find that my daughter’s question has far-ranging consequences and that everything hinges on what we think about old Christian words like transubstantiation.